Liberty continued its unbeaten season and improved its current winning streak to five games, trouncing the Shippensburg Red Raiders (0-2) 35-14 at Williams Stadium on Saturday.
The offense, looking to improve after a disappointing performance against Tusculum, was impressive early but faltered as the game wore on.
“There’s a lot of things out there tonight that really, we’re not very proud of. Obviously anytime you get a win and win [the way we did] there’s a lot of plays we made to win the game,” Coach Rocco said.
“I tell you this because it’s a fact,” Rocco said. “I told the team last night in the team meeting that on the very first drive I want to go 80 yards in nine plays for a touchdown.”
The Flames fulfilled Rocco’s statement, capping off its first drive with a touchdown after pass interference by Shippensburg sophomore Jim Harding put them at the 25-yard line. Two plays later, junior running back Zach Terrell ran down the opposing sideline, making the cornerback miss, and dove in for the score.
“The line did a great job and got me out there one-on-one with the corner, and once I made him miss, it’s pretty easy after that,” said Terrell.
Shippensburg responded with a 12 play, 80-yard drive resulting in a touchdown. A second-down penalty gave the Red Raiders new life as a possible sack and 11-yard loss made by redshirt senior Pat Dickerson turned into a 15-yard facemask penalty.
Shippensburg took advantage of its second chance two plays later when Red Raiders senior quarterback Gabe Maiocco completed a 23-yard pass to Mike Harris, who dove into the end zone for the touchdown.
After Shippensburg tied the game, it became a war of attrition, with neither team able to get anything going offensively.
The Flames defense forced six punts out of seven other first half possessions for Shippensburg.
The scoring drought ended with four minutes left in the first quarter when Liberty senior Wynton Jackson returned a punt 88 yards for the touchdown. The punt return was the second longest in school history, and was the second special teams score for Jackson in as many games.
“All I had to do was catch the ball. Everybody else on the punt return team did the rest of the work. They did the hard part,” said Jackson.
When asked about the effectiveness of special teams and his ability to find holes, Jackson cracked a smile and said, “Special forces, not special teams. Special forces.”
Special teams has not been a laughing matter for the opposition this season as they have had trouble finding ways to stop Jackson when he is at his best.
“Every team spreads out differently, and we have something for every team,” said Jackson.
The inconsistency for the Flames offense continued as they failed to score on their next three drives while the defense continued to keep the Shippensburg offense at bay. Despite losing the time of possession battle, they held the opposition to just 14 points.
Thanks to a fumble forced and recovered by junior safety Rick Greiser, the Flames started a drive at their own 47 with 3:53 to go in the first half. There, senior quarterback Brock Smith threw three consecutive completions, the last of which was a three-yard pass to Jackson. Jackson then who broke across the middle, eluded a couple of defenders and highlighted the play by flying high into the end zone for a 22-yard score.
“We’re just taking it one play at a time, doing our job and not trying to go above and beyond,” Smith said.
The next possession was more of the same for Smith and Jackson as they connected for a 65-yard touchdown to put the Flames ahead 28-7 going into the second half. After the game, Jackson was asked if it was his best half of football in his career.
“Yeah, I could say that. It started off at practice Monday morning watching film and it just continued during the week.”
Shippensburg finally appeared to solve the Flames defense in the fourth quarter, reeling off a 14-play drive resulting in a touchdown to bring them within two scores. After a quick three-and-out by Liberty’s offensive unit, the Raiders appeared to be on the verge of scoring before junior Pat Calvary intercepted Maiocco’s pass and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown to put the Flames up 35-14.
For the defensive unit, senior Stevie Ray Lloyd finished with a team-high 12 tackles while junior linebacker Nick Hursky followed up last week’s 12 tackles with 11.
For the second week in a row, the Flames pulled off a convincing win at home against a Division II school.
“We still have room to improve,” said Smith. “We’re waiting to explode, and we’re gonna do it sometime.”
The Flames will travel away from Williams Stadium for their first road game of the year, heading to Williamsburg, Va., to take on the Tribe of William and Mary on Saturday Sept. 15. Kick off is set for 7 p.m.